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In 'Our Strangers,' life's less exciting aspects are deemed fascinating

Bookshop.com

Lydia Davis is a sly miniaturist whose distinct blend of personal reflection, flash fiction, and poetic concision serve up little epiphanies in shot glass-sized portions. Her decision to have her first story collection in 10 years sold exclusively through independent bookstores has made headlines and necessitated breaking with her longtime publisher.

Fortunately, Our Strangers, which is Bookshop.org's first publication, is notable for more than its author's stand against online behemoths.

Davis has been hailed as "our Vermeer," "a magician," and a "distinct and crookedly personal" writer. Her brilliance became more widely recognized after the 2009 publication of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, an anthology that encompasses all her short fiction through 2008. Two brick-like volumes of collected essays released in 2019 and 2021-- on her work in fiction and translation, respectively — further showcased the substantial heft of her oeuvre.

I've enjoyed Davis's koan-like stories for years but never reviewed them, in part because I found them more appealing when ingested in micro-doses, like homeopathic remedies, rather than glugged down from start to finish on deadline.

Although I still prefer to savor her work in dainty sips, I'm happy to report that, even read straight through, the more than 150 short-shorts in Our Strangers again feature her wry response to what she sees as life's essential oddness. Her focus has shifted largely from issues of parenting and domestic relationships to aspects of aging, but the results are as penetrating as anything she's written.

Socrates famously argued that "the unexamined life is not worth living." No one could accuse Davis of living an unexamined life, although its value remains subject to her constant self-assessments.

"Learning to Sing" exemplifies Davis' dogged yet humorous line of inquiry, although unusually, it is written in the second person. After joining a neighborhood singing group, the writer finds her voice dismayingly thin and weak. Voice lessons unfortunately escalate her concerns: "Your teacher lends you a book on how to relax. But you are too impatient to try the exercises. You like to be active, and learning to relax is not active enough." Additionally, she worries, "if you cease to be tense, perhaps you can't go on doing the other things in your life the way you have always done them. Do you really want to change? Do you want to relax enough to be able to sing better, but lose the tension you need to do everything else?" The lessons open yet another can of worms when the teacher asks, "And why are you so critical?... Who was critical of you in your life?" Davis writes, "Of course, you know it was your mother."

Many of the stories are set on trains, where the narrator eavesdrops but wishes for more stimulating material. In "Those Two Loud Women," she writes, "If they're going to talk so constantly near me on the train, they could at least have an interesting conversation, one that I would like to overhear!" More often, she's annoyed at having her concentration disturbed. "Bothered Scholar on Train" is a plea for the quiet she needs to decipher stories in the language of Armagnac, a dialect of Occitan that's far more difficult than French.

Davis is continually intrigued and surprised by other people. In the title story, about good and bad neighbors, she writes, "People are strangers to me. People I don't know have habits that are nothing like my habits."

"Pardon the Intrusion," the longest piece at an overly long 20 pages, offers a window into some strangers' lives through classified notices posted on a community website. Among the items on offer or requested are brown expanding folders, a zither needing a new home, and the loan of a chair sturdy enough to hold a very pregnant bride for the Hora at a wedding.

Davis loves to watch people connect in unexpected ways. Coincidental, six-degrees-of-separation-type links — which make the world seem less vast — are featured in a series called "Claims to Fame." A typically convoluted example: The author's mother's second husband later married the model for the nightclub dancer Sally Bowles in "Cabaret." Got that? Davis takes it a step further: This woman gave birth to her half-sister's half-sister.

Davis is aware that not much happens in many of the tales she tells — "as is true of so many stories in real life." Some are negligible, while others read like captions for New Yorker cartoons. ("It doesn't have to be a Burberry!" a woman overheard discussing raincoats tells her lunch companion.)

But there's plenty of depth here, too, especially in stories shaded by intimations of mortality. "How He Changed Over Time" and "Winter Letter," a mother's report to her grown kids, both offer a sobering — make that depressing — picture of withdrawal from once active, engaged lives, with an accompanying sense of invisibility and erasure. The mother's excitement about an apron exhibit at her local library is particularly heartbreaking, as is her awareness of her much reduced existence. "I know this isn't too fascinating," she writes, "but it's our life."

That's the thing about Davis' work: Even when life isn't so fascinating, she finds its very lack of excitement fascinating.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.